Detecting super-thin clouds with polarized sunlight



We report a novel method for detecting cloud particles in the atmosphere. Solar radiation backscattered from clouds is studied with both satellite data and a radiative transfer model. A distinct feature is found in the angle of linear polarization of solar radiation that is backscattered from clouds. The dominant backscattered electric field from the clear-sky Earth-atmosphere system is nearly parallel to the Earth surface. However, when clouds are present, this electric field can rotate significantly away from the parallel direction. Model results demonstrate that this polarization feature can be used to detect super-thin cirrus clouds having an optical depth of only ~0.06 and super-thin liquid water clouds having an optical depth of only ~0.01. Such clouds are too thin to be sensed using any current passive satellite instruments.